“The Hamper"

Memoir by Phyllis Italiano

My father was always a very special man in my eyes. This quiet adoration began when I was about 12. Now you have to remember what it was like back then in the ’50s — life was a whole lot simpler and safer. I also have to explain a little about me. I was, from the time I could walk, what was referred to in those days, before people developed social awareness, as a wild Indian, which simply put means I never walked when I could run and never ran when I could skate.

On a particular Saturday morning as soon as “Let’s Pretend” was over on the radio, I grabbed my skates and flew down the six flights of steps to the sidewalk of St. Raymond Avenue, our Bronx street, and, while sitting on the curb, put them on. Once the skates were secured on my feet, I turned the corner of the apartment house to Zerega Avenue. Zerega Avenue was a very special street, wide, one-way traffic, and possessing a smooth macadam surface — a skater’s idea of paradise.

I would spend the rest of that particular day flying up and down Zerega Avenue. Friends would come and join me. We would play a game or two — tag, war, to name a couple. Friends would leave, but I stayed on until the light began to dim. I knew, on some level, I had to go home, but how do you stop when you’re having such a good time — so I skated a bit longer with the last latecomers. Finally, when there was no one left to play with, I headed for home. 

On Saturday in the Italian households of my neighborhood, most families ate their big meal of the day at midday, about two or so. Coming back to reality, and with the sun’s heat and light waning, I realized it was long past two and scurried home.

As soon as I opened the door I knew I was in big trouble. My mother, always the hysteric, started to scream at me. “Where have you been? You’re 12 years old. You left here at 11:30 and it’s now a quarter to 6,” she said, tapping her foot and looking at the clock. “Where have you been?”

“I dunno. Skating on Zerega Avenue,” I replied.

“Where? Just where? I called out every window.” Another neighborhood custom was to call or whistle out a window for your kid. “I even sent Joan and Marie out looking all over for you. They never found you, Miss. We were so worried.”

“Well, I did skate up Rowland Street.”

“You skated up Rowland Street,” she repeated with her arms clasped and her foot tapping, beginning to sound like thunder. Mom wasn’t having any of this and rather than haul off and hit me herself in her usual style, she said, “Mike, I want you to take care of her and give her a good beating.” My sisters were smirking, glad I was getting what was due me. They were always jealous of the fact that I disobeyed the rules and brazenly did as I pleased. 

My father started to slowly, deliberately take off his belt. “Get into that bathroom,” he sternly said, pointing with the outstretched hand that was clasping the black leather belt. 

Wow, now it was my turn to be scared.  I didn’t know what to do. My father had never hit any of his children, but I guess what I had done was such an egregious act I would have to face my punishment. So with head hanging I reluctantly walked into the bathroom. He followed and closed the door behind us. He whispered to me, “Now, when I hit the hamper, you cry loud and hard.”

To this day I wish someone would have had a camera and taken a shot of my face, which at first was trying to comprehend the words my father was saying. Then I was disbelieving, and finally getting with it, as he hit the hamper, I yelled. I cried and I ouched, until my mother pleaded from outside the door, “Okay, Mike, that’s enough!” He stopped, walked out first with the look on his face that he had done his duty as a strict father, and with a great deal of flourish, put his belt back on.

I walked out visibly humbled, and my sisters who were huddled together looked at me in awe. My mother said, “We had hamburgers today. Do you want one? I saved it for you.” 

Holding my rear to show I had been taught a lesson, I meekly relied, “Yes, please.” That was the day that quiet adoration for my father was born.

Phyllis Italiano is a retired school administrator who lives in Springs.